Friday, May 22, 2009

Guessing Someone's Intent

A couple of weeks ago I had another peak experience on the stage of Powell Hall.  The St. Louis Symphony performed Beethoven's 9th Symphony to three sellout crowds.  I don't think it possible for an orchestra to play better or to hear a more devoted interpretation or to be more thrilled and still live to tell about it!

The element of devotion comes from our maestro, David Robertson.  I have thought since the first time I saw him prepare a concert ten years ago that he brings an enormous empathy to a score.  Trained in composition, he looks at the notation to discover how the piece lives and breathes.  He tries to imagine why a composer made each choice, as if the options were his own.

The result was an approach to the 9th symphony the likes of which most of us had not encountered before.  We all grew up with recordings of the 9th that were made a generation or two earlier.  An earlier approach to Beethoven brought out beautiful passages that seemed "untroubling" to my ears.  I knew the Ormandy way, the Karajan way, the Muti way, and I thought I understood, through them, "the Beethoven way."

Robertson's approach startled me, shook me, made me question why he "imposed" such difficulty on the performers.  I came to realize that he had decided to approach the printed score as if Beethoven actually meant what he wrote down.  What a concept!  Beethoven may have been stone deaf, but let's not assume that after a lifetime of experience with voices and orchestras, he suffered from insanity.

To give only one example, there is a section at the opening of the final movement in which the orchestral basses seem to be playing a vocal recitative-without-text.  It sounds like a standard recitative in my favorite recordings.  There is nothing untroubling about the sound of it.

My favorite recordings, however, don't follow Beethoven's instructions.  He says "in the character of a recitative, but in tempo."  Robertson caught the string bass section off guard when he took that section in tempo.  It was as if the musicians had never seen the music before.  Their passages didn't go anything like the way they'd done them previously.

Taken in strict tempo, those passages sound awkward, there is no way for them not too.  They sound like they truly do not "work."  The listener senses the string basses are attempting to do something for which they are not at all suited.

And then a unique thing happens.  For the first time in a classical symphony, a human bass sings these words: "Oh, friends, not these tones."  And he means, "let human voices take over here; human voices have what this symphony really needs at this moment."  And so the chorus enters and completes the resolution of the earth-shattering tensions of the whole symphony.

In Robertson's interpretation, taking Beethoven literally, the text of the singer makes the kind of sense it never makes when the old-style interpretation is in play.  If the orchestral basses sound perfectly fit to play a recitative, there is no reason for a human voice to say, "enough, already!"

That's what we learned this time by watching David Robertson devote himself to someone else's intentions.  I think everyone in the hall sensed how special a concert this was.  A second after the last note sounded, they leapt to their feet as one, shouting and clapping, thanking us all for opening their ears to a work of genius.

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